Flags were down at the Canadian embassy in Kyiv on Monday, and Ukraine’s main airline began moving planes out of the country, as the consequences of Russia’s military pressure escalated even without shots being fired.
On the ground, there was a spreading feeling that the West – which many Ukrainians hoped their country might one day fully join – was deserting Ukraine to its fate as warnings about an imminent Russian invasion multiplied.
After weeks of asking Ukraine’s allies not to panic, President Volodymyr Zelensky gave a video address on Monday and spoke explicitly about the possibility the country could soon face “a great war.” He said Ukraine was already dealing with information and economic attacks, as well as the presence of “an alien army” on the country’s borders.
“We are being threatened by a great war, and the date of the invasion has been appointed,” he said, alluding to reports that U.S. President Joe Biden had told allies that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could start on Wednesday. “We are told that Feb. 16 will be the day of attack, but we will make it the Day of Unity. I have already signed the relevant decree. On this day, we will hoist national flags everywhere, and wear blue and yellow ribbons to show the entire world our unity.”
The decree on “emergency measures to consolidate Ukrainian society,” increased soldiers’ salaries by 30 per cent, and those of police and border guards by 20 per cent. A “united informational platform” was also created “to inform people about the real security situation.”
Mr. Zelensky’s blunt talk matched the actions of Western governments. Canada’s embassy has now fully relocated to the city of Lviv, near Ukraine’s border with Poland. The U.S., Australia and the Netherlands have done the same, while Britain is maintaining only minimal staffing in Kyiv, where they are suspending consular services. On Monday, Reuters reported that the World Bank was pulling international staff out of Ukraine.
“It’s a feeling of abandonment,” said Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of Anti-Corruption Action Centre, a non-governmental organization that receives the bulk of its funding from Western governments. “What kind of message is this sending to the world? Foreigners, foreign businesses are getting the message that Ukraine is dangerous.”
There were hints from Moscow on Monday of a possible de-escalation in the months-long crisis. In a televised briefing, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told President Vladimir Putin that diplomatic options were “far from exhausted,” though he also warned against “endless negotiations.” In a separate briefing, Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu told Mr. Putin that some Russian military exercises near Ukraine were “coming to an end.”
However, an estimated 130,000 Russian troops remain massed on three sides of Ukraine, and videos posted to social media suggested that tanks and other equipment were being moved closer to the border on Monday. The Kremlin has demanded assurances that Ukraine will never be allowed to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and has also called for NATO to pull back forces from Eastern Europe. The U.S. and NATO have said Moscow can never have a veto over their policies.
Vadym Prystaiko, a former Ukrainian foreign minister who is now the country’s ambassador to Britain, told the BBC on Monday that his country was ready to make “many concessions” in order to avoid a war. However, he said Ukraine could not renounce its aim of joining NATO since that was a goal enshrined in the country’s constitution.
Western governments continued to prepare as though an overwhelming Russian assault was imminent. Over the weekend, Canada withdrew the 260-soldier Operation Unifier, which had been training Ukraine’s military since 2014. All Canadian citizens in Ukraine have been advised to leave, and the 38 Canadians attached to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s monitoring mission in eastern Ukraine have been ordered out.
Ottawa says those steps were necessary to ensure “the safety and security of all Canadians on the ground.” The White House has warned that a Russian assault on Ukraine – possibly beginning with rocket strikes and an aerial bombardment campaign – could begin as early as this week. British Foreign Minister Liz Truss said on Monday that the “latest information suggests Russia could invade at any moment.”
Such warnings are taking a growing toll on the already struggling Ukrainian economy. Ukraine International Airlines said on Monday that it had been forced to move seven of its 25 aircraft (all of which are leased) out of the country after insurers withdrew coverage for Ukraine-based carriers. The company said the move was made “at the request of lessors.”
Aviation lawyer Andriy Guck said the refusal of insurers to provide coverage – at a time when Ukraine’s airspace remains open – was “very unexpected.” Even stranger, he said, was the decision by lessors to demand that planes be removed from the country despite the Ukrainian government’s announcement on Sunday that it had created a US$592-million fund to support the aviation industry through the crisis.
Mr. Guck, who is part of the Ukrainian government’s aviation task force, said statements from the White House about an imminent Russian attack were generating a panic that was hurting Ukraine. “From the point of view of the American President, I understand it very well. If it happens, he warned about it. If it doesn’t happen, he stopped it. I understand this game, but it’s not very nice to be played with.”
Mr. Guck said two smaller Ukrainian carriers – SkyUp and Bees Airlines – were in the same situation as UIA and could be forced to move their leased fleets of planes out of the country as early as Tuesday. “We were expecting some support, especially for aviation, but instead they are killing it,” Mr. Guck said.
Dutch carrier KLM has also announced that it is cancelling all flights to Ukraine and will avoid the country’s airspace. Flight-tracking software suggested that other international carriers were also avoiding flying over Ukraine on Monday, though Czech Airlines and the Latvian-owned airBaltic both said they were sending extra planes to Kyiv this week to keep up with escalating demand.
Meanwhile, the Ukrayinska Pravda online newspaper reported on Monday that 23 members of parliament – many of them members of a pro-Russian political block – had left the country in recent days, as had some of Ukraine’s richest businesspeople. In his speech, Mr. Zelensky said those who had left should “come back to your people and to your country which gave you your fortune and your factories.” He said the MPs should return “within 24 hours.”
The drama over the future of the country’s aviation industry was unfolding at the same time as massive Russian naval drills in the Black Sea have been disrupting shipping routes. Data compiled by shipping tracker VesselsValue shows Ukraine’s seaborne exports of grain and other dry goods are down more than 40 per cent this month compared with the first half of January.
Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnia, has lost about 9 per cent of its value since the Russian military buildup began in November. Inflation was 10 per cent in January. Russia’s currency, the ruble, and the country’s main stock market also tumbled on Monday after the latest U.S. warnings about an invasion.
Canada, the U.S., Britain and the European Union have vowed to respond with heavy economic sanctions should Russia – which already occupies the Crimean Peninsula and funds a separatist militia in the Donbas region – launch a deeper invasion of Ukraine.
Ms. Kaleniuk said it was infuriating that Ukraine was feeling the economic pain while the West was waiting to see what Mr. Putin did next before making a decision about sanctions. She said Russia’s naval exercises in the Black Sea amounted to a de facto blockade of Ukraine’s ports – an act of war that should already have triggered sanctions against Moscow and Kremlin-friendly oligarchs with assets in the West. “I can’t understand why Ukraine and Ukrainians are paying for the Russian aggression, which continues, while Russia is not being punished,” she said. “Putin is testing step-by-step, and the West is taking no action.”
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